I haven't yet seen this documentary on high school debate called "Resolved" that attempts to cash in on the "Spellbound" boom in nerdy competition documentaries, but it sounds intriguing. The director, Greg Whiteley, stumbled upon a great human interest story: two black guys, Richard Funches and Louis Blackwell, from the dismal Long Beach public high school Jordan, where only 2% of seniors score over 1,000 on the SAT (Math plus Verbal), won the 2005 California high school debate championship in policy debate and finished second overall. And they did it by rebelling against the dysfunctional quantity-over-quality style of debate that has dominated for the last 40 years.
When I was in high school debate in the early-mid 1970s, it was obvious that debate had gotten off track and needed a rules change. To make the competition more objective, younger judges had started flowcharting the entire debate in enormous detail on three foot wide drawing pads. Debaters responded by increasing the number of arguments they put forward by speaking faster. If they could spit out 32 arguments in 8 minutes, and their slower-speaking opponents could only refute 24, then there were 8 arguments that had gone unrefuted and therefore, logically, they must win! As the Variety review explains:
Pic cleverly explains (aided by some ingenious stop-motion animation by Sean Donnelly) the odd stylistic changes that overtook debating in the 1970s, shifting from normal vocal delivery to a high-speed chatter, a la auctioneers, dubbed "the Flow," intended to pack as much information as possible within a time allotment. As Cal State Fullerton coach Jon Brushke and others explain, the weapon of pure argumentation was replaced by that of information overload. In an uncanny way, "Resolved" touches on a key characteristic of contempo life -- the avalanche of information and data that threatens to overwhelm users.
Obviously, this emphasis on speed isn't good training for much of anything in the real world, where trying to talk faster than the other guy is more likely to get you a punch on the nose than the acclaim of your fellow men. When FDR, for example, was in debate at
Back in the 1970s, we figured that the debate authorities would come up with some reform of the rules, just as in the 1950s the NBA solved the opposite but similar problem of basketball teams stall the entire game without shooting by instituting a 24-second shot clock. For instance, perhaps judges would only be allowed to take notes on one side of a sheet of 8.5" by 11" paper that would bring sanity back to debate.
But, it appears that nothing happened in debate for decades after I dropped out following my junior year in high school. Like a lot of institutions, bad trends were self-reinforcing. The people who won under the stupid rules didn't see why they should change them.
Finally, Funches and Blackwell of Jordan H.S. got away with talking slowly and persuasively, like human beings rather than debatedroids. How? By constantly playing the race card. Kevin Butler writes in the Long-Beach Press Telegram:
A two-person debate team from
Richard Funches and Louis Blackwell, two African-American students formerly at the inner-city
The documentary shows the pair - who became state high school champs, graduated and went on to compete in college - trying to change the style of debate. The film also profiles a white team from
The focus, however, partly shifted to Funches and Blackwell, who came out of nowhere in the debate community to become state champions in 2005. The students, now both 19, argued that the structure of debate itself had the effect of excluding minorities and low-income populations. The structure had "never been thought of as a problem because ... the debate community is mostly an affluent community," Blackwell said.
The pair discussed the inequities during debate rounds in an effort to change the system.
"We felt like a lot of urban minorities ... didn't necessarily have adequate resources or equipment to debate the way" most teams debate, Funches said.
The style of rapid speaking and jargon-filled prose also is exclusionary, Funches said, prompting his partner and him to try to switch the conversation during debate rounds to argue about the structure of debate itself.
Too often in debate, the rapid-talking tactic results in a victory for the team that throws out the most arguments, even though some center on outlandish scenarios, said David Wiltz, a former Jordan debate coach who worked with Funches and Blackwell.
"What we were saying is that the issues we were bringing into the round were more real and had more impact than any other issues we can discuss," Wiltz said.
The strategy was not without controversy, Funches said. "There were several people who wouldn't even shake our hands after the round," Funches said.
Funches and Blackwell didn't have debate in mind when they first enrolled at